ISIS in SyriaThe purpose of the “War:The Afterparty” global walkabout is to visit the scenes of our last half century of military and covert incursions for lessons learned. It’s been particularly fascinating in week one to hear the stories of the people who were on the other end of the gun barrel, the people for whom we spent blood and treasure so that they might enjoy freedom, democracy and free enterprise. I expect the narrative will be different from Guatemala to Nicaragua, from Kosovo to Vietnam.

And now…what’s this? If George W. Bush liked thinking of himself as The War President, Barack Obama surely likes thinking of himself as The Peace President. Last night’s address, which I caught this morning after a late night arrival in Managua, promises a new multi-year conflict:

My fellow Americans, tonight I want to speak to you about what the United States will do with our friends and allies to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.

Obama Isis SpeechThe President then laid out a four point strategy. You can read it here. In short, the plan involves air support, training, intelligence and equipment to the Iraqis doing the fighting on the ground, a broad sweep of counterterrorism actions, and humanitarian assistance to the victims of the murderous IS rampage.

And it will be done with an insistence on aggressive and urgent reform in the Iraqi government–Maliki is already gone–and the involvement of Arab and other allies.

There are hints of a new, escalating conflict, but the speech goes to great lengths to describe strategy, limits and motives.

Stephen Kinzer, whose thick books on Nicaragua and Guatemala are nestled in my backpack, noted Obama’s avoidance of hysterical paranoia and overreach in this morning’s Boston Globe in a piece called “Obama’s calm approach on ISIS will keep America safer.”

“Perhaps he would mobilize the nation more fully and win bigger headlines if he warned, like Governor Rick Perry of Texas, that ISIS terrorists might be sneaking across the Mexican border at this very moment…

“He called not for a massive attack but a steady, relentless effort’ to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ the militant group.

“It is difficult to hear our President gently remind us, ‘We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world.’ It challenges ideas of American power that are part of our collective psyche. Yet too many of our interventions in the Middle East have been aimed largely at fixing the messes left by our previous interventions. Obama signaled that he wants to pull the United States out of that cycle.”

Obama Speech ISISIs there any difference between the Obama and Bush approaches? I think so.

Obama resists talk of a divine or providential mission to spread American values around the world, violently and unilaterally if necessary.

He resists saber rattling, militarist language threatening that you are either with us or against us.

He is consulting Congress, without the manipulative, deceitful political machinations used by Cheney and Rice, in evoking stark fears of an imminent apocalyptic threat.

He is doing this only with allies involved and supporting the mission.

He is doing it in support of a sovereign country, Iraq, whose people are being terrorized and whose vital resources such as dams and oil fields are at risk.

And he is disappointing the people who got us into this mess in the first place, via a nonstop attack on his approach as weak, feckless and adrift. People like Brookings analyst Robert Kagan, whose call, with Bill Kristol, for benevolent global hegemony in Foreign Affairs magazine provided the intellectual foundation for the disastrous Iraq invasion. Peter Beinart dissects Kagan’s position in The Atlantic.

“If American policymakers are truly “yearning for an escape from the burdens of power” and “com[ing] close to concluding … that war … is ineffective,” they have a strange way of showing it. Near the end of his first year in office, President Obama sent 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. That same year, he began an expansion of America’s drone program that would lead him to authorize eight times as many strikes (so far) as George W. Bush did. In 2011, the Obama administration helped militarily depose Muammar al-Qaddafi. Over the last month, it has launched 130 airstrikes in Iraq, with more almost certainly to come, perhaps in Syria as well.”

The speech outlines difficult decisions that are measured, justified, collaborative and legal. For now, that seems about right.

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